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The Big Kahuna (1999)
A bang-on, unbelievably good script executed by some of the finest actors around
"The Big Kahuna" proved to be one of the finest offerings that I was privy to at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. The expression "saving the best for last" applies strongly to this film. We were fortunate to have a Q&A after the film with Roger Rueff, the screenwriter of this eloquently written piece, John Swanbeck, the director enjoying all that a first timer could hope for from his debut, and the gifted actor Kevin Spacey, who starred in and produced the film.
This marvellous examination of three men of different age groups at a convention in Wichita also features the talents of Danny DeVito who apparently came to the production in the proverbial last minute. This film was shot in a very short sixteen days which comes as a surprise, despite it's one central location, as the dialogue is so strong. The best way to describe it is as almost poetic.
The script was adapted from the play "Hospitality Suite", also written by Rueff, who revealed in the Q&A that the story was based upon his own experiences at a sales convention long ago. But he assured us that his character of the young, impressionable, bible thumping "Bob" was not based on himself. Rueff also noted that with this being his first screenplay, he had worried about the horror stories he heard where scripts are butchered and transformed into things the writer never intended in many Hollywood productions. But in this case, he trusted the director and cast implicitly and was not disappointed in any way.
Kevin Spacey shines in this sneak peak behind the scenes of a sales convention where the future of a company lies squarely on the shoulders of three men in the pursuit of a big client. The president of another company represents the biggest potential account they will ever have. They exchange stories, accounts and personal philosophies and find how different they are from one another based on what they've been through.
The interaction between the three actors is mesmerizing. They take the audience into what feels like a true life account documented verbatim. To say more would spoil the outcome for those who've not yet had a chance to enjoy this film. It is my strong recommendation that all of those who have not, do so at their first available opportunity.
The antidote to all your troubles, "1900" will sweep you away
It is at a time like this I wish I could expand my vocabulary to better articulate the virtues and qualities of such a fine film. I also find I'm bursting to talk about this film that I regrettably saw alone. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but desperately want to share it with everyone.
The talented star of "The Legend of 1900", Tim Roth, presented this film along with Clarence Williams III. His encouragement to the audience was that if anyone was the sort who liked to pick apart at films and critique their lack of realism, they should just leave now. He touted this wonderful vision from the director of Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore, and likened the film to a "dream". He also said that if anyone had seen his own film, "The War Zone", that "1900" was the antidote for it. I was slated to see "The War Zone" the next day, but that was fine by me. I managed by a sheer stroke of luck to get into this Canadian premiere and found it to be absolutely extraordinary and the best film I'd seen so far of the Toronto International Film Festival.
It seems as though mere moments after the initial credits, that the wonderful storytelling and incredible music combined with stunning visuals almost had me moved to tears. While I'll admit that I'd be seeing films all day, no film in my recollection had such an impact so quickly.
The story is one of an abandoned baby who is found on a ocean liner by one of the ship's crew. He is unofficially adopted and named "1900" for the year in which he was born. At a very early age the boy demonstrates an extraordinary gift for piano playing which is only strengthened in his passing years. The boy grows up with no official identity, into a man having never taken a step off of the ship onto dry land in his whole life. The young man, played by Tim Roth is encouraged by his dear friend to leave the boat and pursue a life of fame and fortune as the great pianist he has become. 1900 declines, explaining simply that everything he needs is on the boat.
Well, that should be enough to intrigue you; there's much more of course, but I've no desire to spoil it for anyone. I must encourage everyone to see this film, I can hardly imagine anyone being disappointed. It's for music lovers, dreamers, romantics and film buffs everywhere and my greatest hope is that it will be seen by many, many people, especially those I know and love. And after seeing the film, and hearing Tim Roth's words echoing in my mind, he was absolutely right. It is like a dream, a wonderful dream that I wished would never end. And for a future prediction, I see this film as a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination for 1999.
To Walk with Lions (1999)
A stunning account of the life of George Adamson, the lion man.
Director Carl Schultz has made an extraordinary film with the help of some vastly talented and brave actors who overcame their fears to work with lions in Africa.
"To Walk With Lions" was featured in the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival and presented by the director, some actors and producers of the film, all of whom should be very proud of a triumphant and majestic film. The landscapes are magnificent and breathtaking, and prove to be an intriguing backdrop to an even more intriguing man who became something of a legend in our time.
Thirty years ago, "Born Free" told the story of the Adamsons from its inception. This film carries on their story it until its tragic end in the late eighties. It mostly concerns the wildlife preserve "Kora", run by George Adamson, played incredibly by the wonderful and distinguished Richard Harris.
The troubles in Africa continue even still as the corrupt Kenyan government and poachers prevail in the slaughter of the African wildlife, threatening extinction without much concern for the consequences. The story is told through the eyes of Tony Fitzjohn, as played by John Michie. Fitzjohn continues the Adamson crusade to preserve wildlife and rehabilitate lions from captivity back into the wild even today.
The film was followed by an interesting Q&A where it was revealed that the majority of scenes with lions were real, which is astonishing considering the close proximity to the actors in many of the sequences.
It would come as no surprise to me if this film was nominated for Oscars. If not, it would only be a testament to the high quality of the other nominees. When your opportunity presents itself, do not pass this one up.
History Is Made at Night (1999)
The cold war is over, and secret agents are out of work
This entertaining poke at the cold war remnants is an interesting little romp that is at times very funny and others very clever and original.
Presented at the Toronto International Film Festival by director Ilkka Jarvilaturi, the film goes from one interesting locale to another as we jump from Hellsinki to New York to St. Petersburg. Bill Pullman and Irene Jacob are secret agents from opposite sides who have romantic entanglements as they try to determine just what they mean to each other while they still have a job to do.
A mysterious and coded porno tape is intercepted in transit and the CIA attempts to decode it while stalling for time. Complications arise in the plot which gives way to some innovative yet ultimately classical comic situations. I don't know whether it's the fault of the film or the theater's sound system but at times it was difficult to follow what was happening due to the heavy accents of the (presumably) Finnish actors. Bill Pullman's comic performance in the underrated "Zero Effect" is a good warm up for this similar but distinctly different character, and he is always a pleasure to watch. Bruno Kirby also provides a solid comic contribution as a disgruntled FBI operative and the stunningly beautiful Irene Jacob graces the screen in a demure yet intriguing role as the KGB agent looking to get ahead in the ranks.
Jarvilaturi was gracious enough to stick around for a Q&A after the film and spoke of mostly the music selections and their role in the film. One audience member pointed out a subtle yet relevant continuity error that they said they were already aware of and intended to fix. This is an indication of how fresh the film was and how the pressures of festival deadlines can affect the film.
American Movie (1999)
Some filmmakers just don't know how to give up. This is one of them.
Chris Smith presented his fantastic documentary "American Movie" at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival with a group of supporters from behind and in front of the camera. As revealed in an entertaining Q&A after the film, Chris Smith met Mark Borchardt, an independent filmmaker, while both were working on their films in Wisconsin. Mark is best described as a horror film and heavy metal enthusiast who's tenacity is rivalled by none. His hobby has been filmmaking since he was a kid and has made numerous home movies. "Man" is the most commonly heard word at the end of his sentences, and he is rarely at a loss for words.
After speaking with Mark, Chris decided to begin a new project following Mark's progress in trying to get his film finished, and the results are vastly entertaining, often hilarious and of the knee slapping variety. If you miss this film, you're missing something special.
When Mark's plans for his feature length film "Northwestern" fall apart, he sets out to finish "Coven" (pronounced "Coh-vin"), a short, black and white horror film that he'd been working on for some time. He plans to complete it and sell his modest film at the price of $14.95 with a projected goal of 3,000 units to be sold to cover costs and finance his upcoming feature. As we get a glimpse of the film work already completed, we can see this is going to be no small feat. As Chris revealed at the screening, this was expected to take six months time. Two years later, their saga had ended.
In a most entertaining way, we see that Mark's efforts are rarely short on enthusiasm. He is however, usually short on resources, skills, and finances. He struggles at every turn to get his film made, enlisting the assistance of his family and friends in all aspects, from acting to rolling the camera to splicing the film in editing. We watch as Mark separates his thrifty Uncle Bill from $3,000 of his money to finance the film. We laugh as Mark makes thirty attempts at getting the same Uncle to get one line down for ADR. We cringe as he rams an actor's head through a less then pliable kitchen cupboard door. All along the way, we share in the turmoil that Mark's family has gone through and the sacrifices he makes to make his film and the continued efforts in pursuit of the American dream. He just wants to make movies and despite the mountain of debt he has accumulated, he perseveres.
After the film we were treated to a 35mm print of the nightmarish and very raw "Coven" which to date has sold 100 copies. But in his own words, Mark declares, "I'm gonna sell those 3,000, man, that's not arrogance, that's just something I've got to do." Videos and T-shirts were available for sale in the lobby. The scary thing is, I think he's going to do it.
You won't want to let your loved ones out of your sight after this film
There aren't too many scenarios like this one. The original version and the Hollywood remake of this film were both directed by the same man, George Sluizer. As I understand from popular opinion, this is one film that was fine the first time round, and not well received on the second go. I cannot fairly compare them, and I have no more desire to see the remake of "Spoorloos" than I do the remake of "La Femme Nikita", namely "The Point Of No Return".
I saw the original version upon the strong recommendation of a newspaper reviewer proclaiming it one of the most disturbing films they'd ever seen. The photograph of a young couple about to be torn apart in the paper reeled me in.
A pleasant holiday excursion goes horribly wrong when a man's lady friend goes missing at a crowded rest stop. He grasps at straws in desperation as very little can be done because few clues or leads exist. The abduction is arbitrary and nearly flawless.
The film was indeed well done and what struck me the most was the focus on that of the villain. It is a portrayal of a normal, respectable family man who trains himself in meticulous detail for an abduction. His cold, calculating approach is probably the most frightening aspect. His inhumanity is difficult to comprehend.
Many film endings can be shocking and may stick with you forever, and for a lot of people that is certainly the case with this film. That's why I was surprised to learn that the TV commercials for this film gave away the ending. However it didn't ruin the film for me.
The suspense and chilling setting of this film makes it hard to forget. The viewer constantly wondering, "What would I do?" or "How would I cope?". Impossible questions we all hope we'll never find the answer to.
Of course, keep a few handy responses in mind should you watch this with your better half when they ask the inevitable, almost rhetorical question, "What would you do if I went missing and you couldn't find me?"
"I'd surely die, dear."
All the Rage (1999)
Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns. You know someone's got to die. But will we care?
In a film all about guns, it doesn't take long before some blood is spilled. Part social commentary, part dark comedy, "All The Rage" finds its place just behind making a strong point about gun ownership and their use by the general American public. Making its world premiere at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, this film touches upon issues like irreverence and obsession but doesn't dwell on the morality, inherent danger and potential for misuse.
Being a Canadian, I feel extremely fortunate to live in a country that is not infested with firearms and hope that will never change. The prevalent, ingrained element of guns in American society always exists as a threat to us, the Northern neighbours who live in awe of the lifestyles and death counts. We all fear that one day we may find ourselves in the same boat. If nothing else divides us, I hope at least that this will never change.
The cast features many established, well known and popular actors, some in drastic departures from what we're accustomed to seeing them in, and some not so much. Everyone seems to be putting forth the effort that would make any director proud, but somehow this directorial debut is lacking something.
The setting of the film feels almost like a cartoon comic strip with characters who behave in strange and often irrational ways. I feel this lack of a realistic backdrop takes away from the film's potential to deliver a strong message or generate much of an emotional response from the audience. Few of the film's realistic character portrayals lend enough to give the film's overall sense that of a serious one. Therefore, it's hard to take this film seriously. It wasn't terribly funny either. I hate to say it, but some of the most enjoyable elements of this film for me were the music selections, including a great opening song from Talking Head David Byrne. During the film festival, I tend to be more generous than usual, but I can't say this film won me over.
The Graduate (1967)
Dee da dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee da dee, Doo da doo doo doo doo doo da doo
Here's to you Mrs. Robinson. Was it the song by Simon and Garfunkel made popular by the film, or did the film entrench the song into popular culture? Who's to say either way? It's a matter of opinion, and it's irrelevant really. The fact is, it's a great song and a great movie and the two compliment each other like peanut butter and jelly, ham and swiss or May and December.
This movie is for anyone who's ever wondered what they are going to do with their future, anyone who's been in love with someone their parents didn't approve of, or anyone who's had an affair with one of their parent's friends. Granted, not many will fall in the latter category, but it throws an interesting spin on the film.
The film perfectly encapsulates and portrays the feelings of self-doubt, alienation, disenchantment and unwanted pressures and expectations for a twenty-something just out of college. Dustin Hoffman is the only person we can possibly imagine in the role of Benjamin as his imprint and superb acting makes this film a great one. As reflected on in an interview with Dustin Hoffman on the DVD, "The Graduate at 25", his life changed after this film, propelling him into something of a superstar status as his incredible talent found wide recognition. When I saw "Rushmore" I had a similar feeling about young Jason Schwartzman in the lead role. For him, time will tell. Although "Rushmore" isn't the time tested success that "The Graduate" is, anyone who enjoyed "Rushmore" would likely enjoy "The Graduate" if they haven't already seen it. They are, however, distinctly different films.
This comedy is something of a benchmark in many ways. Not many films of a comedic nature are so socially relevant and of such high quality that they make the A.F.I.'s top ten of all time. The film by many standards is more than just a contemporary comedy. It is quite possibly the best one ever made, given its widespread appeal.
It is well shot with interesting sequences and hilarious segments that hold up against the test of time. It has been a long-time favourite of mine, and I can scarcely imagine growing tired of it.
Barenaked in America (1999)
Fans of Barenaked Ladies will not be disappointed
From the onset, "Barenaked In America" is entertaining and full of verve. Even the opening credits offer the promise of an interesting and fun journey. The documentary was featured in the 1999 Toronto Film Festival for its world premiere with director Jason Priestly presenting along with Steven Page, Ed Robertson and Tyler Stewart of Barenaked Ladies. Priestly has had association with the band for some time and it seems to be a labour of love for him.
The film goes behind the scenes to capture moments from their early history to their most recent tour. Even a native Torontonian fan of the band like myself discovered things I never knew about this dynamic ensemble. With many humourous accounts and opinions from celebrities to the BNL tour bus driver to the band themselves, I feel a second viewing is required to finally make out what I missed due to the boisterous laughter from the delighted audience.
With generous helpings of reflections, interviews, past video moments like "Speakers Corner" and live concert performances, the diversity of this documentary is something of an allegory for the band itself. With a reputation for fantastic live improvisations on stage and proven musical talent, the Barenaked Ladies stand out as true entertainers committed to giving their best and keeping it fresh so that each performance holds something new for the audience.
My favourite moment came from a more serious side of the band with unexpected comical results. For the band's shooting of their video "It's All Been Done", we find the band behind the scenes discussing their discontent after seeing the initial footage. They thought the concept was fine, of shooting the film from a cat's point of view, but felt it was poorly shot and wasn't going to come across well. Talking to their manager, who seems more interested in quelling their sentiments of dissatisfaction then rectifying the matter or championing their concerns, we see them frustrated as an expensive video shoot seems like a waste of money. Ed mentions a terrible shot of little else than a shag carpet for too long a stretch until it finally reaches the band and looks up. "Cats don't walk like that. It's looks terrible." Their manager responds with "How do you know cats don't walk like that?" Ed responds almost angrily, "I have three cats, I know how they walk!" I don't think I laughed as hard as I did at that moment any other time in the film, but it's probably a had to be there moment.
With a subject matter like Barenaked Ladies, I'm sure the editors had their work cut out for them. They undoubtedly had enough material for a three hour film that wouldn't feature a dull moment. As it was, the breakneck pace of the film kept it fresh, entertaining and basically a treat for any fan of the band. Given the band's recent success in the American market, that probably accounts for a good number of people. Given its high quality but perhaps limited audience appeal, I wonder what sort of release this documentary will enjoy. In any case, I feel privileged to be among the few to have seen it, and look forward to an opportunity for a repeat viewing.
Joe the King (1999)
What will become of young Joe the King?
Featured at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, the directorial debut from the talented actor Frank Whaley "Joe The King" was introduced by Frank's long-time friend Ethan Hawke and the film's main actor Noah Fleiss. Ethan explained that Frank and he had been the best of friends since their work on "A Midnight Clear" together. Frank couldn't present the film because he was only just getting into Toronto at the airport but happily agreed to a Q&A afterwards.
The film portrays with stunning clarity a bleak period in the life of Joe, a fourteen year old boy from a lower class neighbourhood whose father is an alcoholic and works as a janitor in Joe's school. Joe works in a restaurant after school and in all aspects of his life he's surrounded by people who look down on him, talk down to him and sometimes beat on him. It's very difficult to not feel sorry for someone like Joe, he'll likely break your heart. Many of us may have bad childhoods or perhaps recall them as such, but for most, this film will give you reason to feel lucky and fortunate whatever your situation was.
There's not so much a story as there is a stringing together of vignettes of a hellish childhood that brings an authentic feel to each and every aspect of the film. While the film does move along quite slowly, each performance given is a strong building block to assemble what ultimately seems to be an autobiographical account. The world that Joe lives in is so fully constructed and detailed that it's easy to forget you're watching a film and not a documentary.
What was revealed in the Q&A afterwards, was that Whaley wrote this film as a conglomerate of his brother and his own experiences growing up. A statement he almost reluctantly offers, explaining that the original title of the film was named for the street where he grew up. Out of respect for his mother they chose "Joe The King" which turns out to be a fairly arbitrary title. "I hope you're not telling people it's autobiographical," as he mimics his mother's concerned sentiment, at which point he shares that he hopes she never sees the film as it may prove too painful for her.
While the film is not based on a true story per se, that is not what is most relevant. What Joe goes through on a daily basis is what this story is about, what is likely to stir you, and not the pivotal event in the later part of the film. And as a young Joe looks into the camera at the end of the film, holding there for a moment. The question that haunts the viewer is, "What will become of young Joe The King?" The answer stood before us with a microphone in hand, fielding answers from an intrigued audience. Frank Whaley himself is the affirmation to his own film.
Frank in his usual charming way answered questions with enthusiasm and humour at one point recounting the casting of the film. As an actor for many years he has had the pleasure of working with numerous gifted individuals and many of these faces appear in the film. He had more difficulty with casting the younger element of the film as he explained that he "doesn't know any kids". He couldn't have asked for a better young lead than Noah Fleiss to play so convincingly Joe the King. And while I don't see this film breaking box office records or even flying off the video stands due to its depressing, sombre nature, I do believe it will be very meaningful to some people and for others prove how lucky they really are.